How to Write a Novel

Of course after the reading and re-immersion to find my creative impulse again, I’m hit with a slough of questions. Like a stray raindrop that inexplicably lands on your forearm on a clear day–there’s no denying it, even though you might be the only person on the planet who felt it. The questions come at random in this way, though I know they are connected to something larger that’s about to burst. Right now, every musing seems to be about how to write a novel. I’ve never written one before and the flurry of my first 59 pages, however thrilling and engaging it felt to compose, was fueled blissfully by ignorance and deadlines. I had to get the work done, so no matter what excuse I came up with (“I can’t,” “I don’t know how,” “Other people do this much better than I do,” “I need a better map and I can’t find one,” “What if it doesn’t make sense?”) ultimately held no power over the fact that I still had to get those first chapters drafted.
The only deadline I have now is one set by myself–the end of October for 50 more pages–because I hope to swap the drafted pages I have at that time with a few friends for an early critique. The ignorance-is-bliss part of the whole novel affair has completely dissolved. What remains are the drops of rain like so many questions from the sky: How do you write a novel? How can I create an authentic present narrative arc and seamlessly infiltrate it with flashback? (Or can I, really?) What is my present narrative, anyway, and why does it matter? Should I keep the American couple or just focus on the Afghan couple? How much more research is enough research? Can I get away with short chapters and alternating narrators or is that ruining my flow?
Deep down, I know the only way to get these answers is to try. Try something, anything–just write fergodsakes!–and let the words on the page (and the impact or lack thereof) be the ultimate teacher. But where to begin? Do I pick up where I left off with the Afghan couple? Do I start a new section focusing only on the American couple? Do I work with what I have and try to expand the chapters into something fuller, something with more narrative arc? The answer is the same: just write fregosakes!
And so it is that the toddler in me wants the answers and is stomping around asking writers that I know for the answers to questions that, really, I can only ever answer for myself. “Writing is a solo sport,” one of my MFA advisors Pete Fromm used to tell me. Indeed it is, as much as I hold dear and respect my fellow author and writer friends. In the end, I’m the only one who can press the keys on the keyboard. I’m the only one who can close my eyes and vividly see the world I’m trying to recreate on the page. I’m the only one who can write that very next sentence, dream up that true-to-life character for just the right moment, or decide the ultimate fate of the lives waiting for my creative attention. I’m the only one who can say, 
“…That first week after Nathan came home from his second tour in Afghanistan, Tenley
still startled herself each time she walked into their bedroom. She’d find him
there nestled under the sheets, one foot hanging over the edge of the bed ready
to leap into action at a moment’s notice. My
, she’d think, who’s that stranger
in my bed?
And in the next blushing breath she’d remember: He made it. He’s safe now…”

Showing 2 comments
  • Mary

    Remember what Molly told me on the Imnaha? Write a scene. That's what I did and I know you are good at that. Then write another. A novel is just a series of flashes, at least that is what I think.

  • Lynn Lovegreen

    Great paragraph at the end–thanks for sharing!

    I'm going through a similar thing on page 216 of my first draft. Yes, we already know the answer, to just write. Once we have a first draft to work with, we can fix things, move parts around, etc. But first we have to write it. Hang in there! 🙂

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